Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lake Lanier...The Fight Goes On!

By David Royse

The News Service of Florida
Posted: 5:51 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, 2009

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday will meet with the governors of Alabama and Georgia as the states again begin to discuss the future of the water that flows through the Chattahoochee and Flint river systems down into the Florida Panhandle and Apalachicola Bay.

The meeting, in Montgomery, Ala., is the first in about two years that Crist, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue have had in person on the long-running dispute over how the water is to be shared, and the first high level talks between the states since a July court ruling that, in effect, put a three-year timeline on solving the dispute.

The headwaters of the system are in the Atlanta area at Lake Lanier, which holds drinking water for the ever-growing metropolis . Since 1990, Alabama and Florida have argued in a series of court cases that Atlanta's water use has deprived downstream users of adequate water flow.

In Alabama, the water is needed for power generation. In Florida, where the Chattahoochee becomes the Apalachicola River, heavy flows are needed to feed fresh water into Apalachicola Bay for a healthy seafood industry.

The Montgomery meeting follows the release last week of a report by a Georgia task force that found that options besides continuing to use Lake Lanier as Atlanta's main drinking water source are too expensive in the short term. The Georgia governor's Water Contingency Task Force said that if some other way of quenching Atlanta's drinking thirst were pursued, it would increase water rates too much, leading Perdue to say that Georgia will push to keep the lake as the region's main source of water.

The three states have until July 2012 to figure out how to divvy up the water. That deadline came from a court ruling in July in which Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ordered a solution to the dispute within three years. If the three states and Congress don't work it out, the allocations for each will revert to 1970s levels that would leave Atlanta, having quadrupled in size in the intervening three decades, in a major water deficit.

Magnuson also barred any increase of drinking water withdrawals from the lake without the consent of Florida and Alabama.

John Brock, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, and the co-chair of Georgia's water task force, said in a statement last week that the federal timeline is too short – and if the state just had a few more years, something could easily be figured out.

"While we cannot close the water gap by 2012, there are additional contingency options that can be implemented by 2015 and 2020," Brock said. "Emergency solutions are extremely costly, but having a few more years opens up a whole range of additional possibilities."

It's not clear whether staff talks have already re-started – officials in Florida have kept things close to the vest. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state's lead agency on the issue, also didn't shed much light on where things are, but released a statement outlining its desire for continued negotiations.

"While we can't speculate on the outcome of a meeting that has not yet occurred, the best possible solution is one that can only be brought about by cooperation and brings into consideration the needs of all three states," DEP said in the statement. "Florida has always been ready to negotiate, in good faith, a fair equitable sharing of the waters in the basin. We remain committed to doing so."

Perdue has made it clear that Georgia won't simply accept the federal remedy and also wants to continue to pursue talks with his neighbors.

"I have always believed that a negotiated settlement that protects the rights and resources of all three states is the most lasting solution," Perdue said in a letter to Crist and Riley earlier this year, calling for the three governors to get together.

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